Chile: candidates battle for moderate votes as presidential race nears end

Chile: candidates battle for moderate votes as presidential race nears end

Chile’s presidential race is hurtling towards its conclusion with the two remaining candidates battling to secure moderate votes in a deeply divided political landscape.

Far-right candidate José Antonio Kast secured a two-point victory in November’s first round, but polls show that Gabriel Boric – the leftwing former student leader he will face in the 19 December runoff – now holds a narrow lead.

Since the first round, Kast has undertaken a whistlestop tour of the US – where he met conservative politicians including Marco Rubio – while back in Chile he has concentrated on attracting other right-leaning candidates’ vote share.

Boric, meanwhile, has taken his campaign into the communities where his message failed to resonate.

“Boric’s vote is urban, progressive, and largely concentrated in Santiago,” said María Cristina Escudero, a political scientist at the University of Chile. “But both candidates have had to physically take their message to the rural and marginalised areas they weren’t able to reach via social media.”

Boric’s campaign has split into four simultaneous tours of Chile, hoping to spread his message that “hope” would triumph over “fear”.

In Chile’s extreme north, he has been represented by Dr Izkia Siches, the former head of Chile’s medical union, a hugely popular figure whose measured, pragmatic leadership over the course of the pandemic won her widespread plaudits.

Down in the south of the country – where Kast won a large majority of the vote – Karol Cariola, a Communist party congresswoman from Boric’s student leader generation, has been knocking on doors alongside a team of mayors and supporters.

“We want to open a million doors in every district and neighbourhood of our country,” she told the Guardian. “We need to look people in the eye and explain to them what Gabriel Boric’s campaign is all about, and how it differs from [Kast’s],” she said. “That’s why it is so important that we are doing these tours.”

Boric himself is visiting key battleground areas, and in Rancagua and Curicó, two cities south of the capital, Santiago, the fourth tour has been led by an enthusiastic set of artists, actors, musicians and cultural figures.

At each stop they are parking a container truck which has been converted into a stage to give free concerts and rousing speeches.

“The reception has been beautiful – people are joyful and engaged with our campaign,” said Francisca Gavilán, the actor who portrayed revered folklorist Violeta Parra in the 2011 biopic Violeta Went to Heaven. She has been performing covers of Parra’s songs to the crowds.

“It’s vital that the cultural scene in Chile has a president that sees and respects us,” says Gavilán, “Without culture, a nation dies: it’s constricted and it shrinks – like a country without education.”

And while both Kast and Boric scrap for the votes, the political class has also realigned itself after the bombshell first round.

Centrist candidate Yasna Provoste and former Socialist party lawmaker Marco Enríquez-Ominami – who took 19% of the first-round vote between them – have backed Boric.

Kast has won support from across the right, speaking at length on a YouTube channel run by businessman Franco Parisi, who surprised many by taking 13% of the vote in the first round despite never setting foot in Chile during the campaigns.

He also belatedly accepted an ultimatum from Sebastián Sichel, a centre-right former minister who himself won 13% of the votes, demanding that he moderate elements of his programme in exchange for his support.

Eduardo Artés, a 70-year-old communist who won less than 1% of the vote, has refused to back either candidate.

The first round of the election was characterised by historically low participation – even for Chile, where more than half of the electorate typically abstain. Only 47% of registered voters turned out in November.

“If people turn out to vote, that favours Boric,” said Escudero. “But that’s a big ‘if’ – and it makes the whole election very uncertain.”